The statistics are discouraging. Fifty percent (give or take a few percent) of marriages fail. But that means that 50 percent of marriages last. And large numbers of people still choose to get married. The marriage business is booming.
As a celebrant, it concerns me that couples make promises for a lifetime that are not fulfilled. So what does it take to have a lasting, happy marriage once the excitement of the wedding celebrations have died down and real life takes over?
To learn about what makes a marriage work, I talked to several couples who are still happily married after 30 years or more, and explored the advice of professional relationship counsellors. Here are some of my findings:
The Attractor Factor
Attraction is where it starts, and for some, ends quickly. I have observed that intense romantic passion can die fast. It seems that often people are drawn together, yes for pleasure and the joy of being together, but also for the lessons they have to learn individually, and as a pair. The stronger the attraction, the greater the lessons, I have noticed.
Those whose marriages have lasted spoke of the magnetic attraction still being there, as at the beginning.
Although partners may be quite different in their choices of food, music or leisure activities, they nevertheless agreed on certain life priorities, about money, raising children, and the numerous little elements that make up daily life. When values are agreed upon, there is an unspoken understanding that makes for ease and comfort with each other, and a greater potential for long-term happiness.
Values need to be discussed and understood before entering into a lifelong commitment.
Commitment to marriage invites emotional maturity. A two-year "engagement" is a rule of thumb, time to get to know each other's strengths, weaknesses and the lessons you might have to learn.
Marriage can bring subtle changes in your relationship, even if you have been together for a number of years. Unresolved issues from times with your parents, other caretakers or previous relationships can re-surface and be mirrored by your new love. These are the opportunities for developing your partnership.
The vows in a wedding ceremony serve an important purpose. The agreements you make must be meaningful, valid and workable for you. What will you promise to each other?
Vows form the foundation for your devotion to your partner, creating a framework for your love, like building the house in which you live together. They form an intention, so that even if you do not live up to them everyday, they provide a structure to which you can return to restore your love.
Good communication starts with the feeling of safety with your loved one, that you are free to express what is true for you, without fear of rejection or criticism. This would include being an open-hearted listener to your partner -- to their dreams and aspirations, as well as their fears and insecurities.
Physical touch, not just sexual expression, communicates a wealth of feeling beyond spoken words and offers comfort and reassurance, as well as playfulness.
Gratitude and Appreciation
A little gratitude goes a long way. Noticing and expressing your appreciation for your loved one, the qualities they have, the accomplishments they make at home or at work or in the community strengthens your connection with each other. That you have been witnessed and recognized gives meaning to your life. Train yourself, if you are not already good at it, to focus on the good, the blessings in your partner and your relationship.
A weekly date night with just yourselves is a good habit to acquire for deepening your bond of love.
In the best of marriages, partners are unlikely to see eye-to-eye all the time. However strong the affection you have for one another, you will inevitably disagree about something. When you are close and intimate, you are necessarily vulnerable. This is the one person who can hurt you the most, even without intending to. Vulnerable has the meaning both of being wounded, and being blessed.
In response to my article, "Forgiveness: When It Counts In Your Marriage," one reader wrote the following to me:
My husband and I naively fell in love and promised forever and ever in 1969, having no clue that we'd ever do anything to each other that required asking for or accepting true forgiveness. I also believed in "world peace" in 1969. The stark reality is that we have tromped on each other's feelings since year one, and many times in most years of our marriage. The difference is that we now know each other so well, that we, in our senior years, are able to know what offends each other. Asking for forgiveness is touchy because the one offending likely knows that he/she is guilty before choosing the hurtful words or actions. That makes pre-confession of the crime necessary, spiced with either "I knew that this would hurt you and I am sorry." Otherwise, the offender asks, "Why didn't you know better?"
In answer to your questions: Yes, there have been too many experiences of forgiveness to name, and each small and large one has been the basis for growth and acceptance of my spouse and his acceptance of me. More importantly, it is the only way we have been marital survivors. I could name a few huge experiences that were enormous threats, some taking years to forgive, accept, and never forget. We both have scars, and I'm sure our three grown children also have scars from our transgressions and our fight to forgive and survive as a family. But, honestly, I can say that doing so has made all the difference in marital survival and happiness in our 60s decade. We have both given and received unconditional love that doesn't magically happen without the commitment to the marriage at a time when you feel uncommitted to the person needing to be forgiven.
I fear that younger people give up on a partner or marriage too quickly. Many of our divorced couple friends have confided in us that they should have forgiven, and moved forward in their marriage, looking back. And all of our now happy, loving couple friends who've survived decades of storms (requiring forgiveness) are terribly glad that they learned what unconditional love really is. There is nothing better than sharing your life with another person who becomes your history. All marriages have scars that heal, and some that are forgiven, remain raw forever. Acceptance of the other person and respect for the marriage outweigh holding on to grudges and losing the longterm partner that you were destined to be with forever.
Renewal of Vows
The passage of time brings new challenges, and opportunities. Many couples celebrate a renewal of vows every five, seven or 10 years to reevaluate their marriage -- the value of their partnership -- and re-affirm their love for each other. This ceremony can open a new door to a more rewarding and satisfying experience together.
To conclude, I share the insights of Trixie Buckel, a truly spirited nonagenarian, whose marriage lasted 70 years until her husband's passing five years ago. While she admits the life was very different in their early days, her comments still have value today.
Anna Fill of The Riviera Woman talks to Trixie, now 94, about the success of her long marriage in the video below.
What do you think are the most important keys to lasting marriage? Do you have any tips to pass on?
I would love to hear from you. Please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment in the space below.